When Jesus was born, angels announced him as the one who would bring peace on earth.

Some time soon after, astrologers came from the East seeking to worship the newborn king of the Jews whose sign they had seen in the heavens. Herod was understandably upset – after all, he was already king of the Jews. So upset was he, in fact, that he had all the baby boys in and around Bethlehem who were under two years old murdered. He was just doing what powerful men have always done – protecting his vested interests.

Thirty or so years later, Jesus began a public ministry that would pit him more and more starkly against the religious and legal authorities, until he was eventually considered enough of a threat to be executed following a staged trial. So much for the newborn king.

Today, we proclaim that Jesus is Lord and celebrate his birth at Christmas and his death and resurrection at Easter. But what kind of a king do we make him out to be?

Very often, this is what we’ve reduced him to: our personal saviour and our passport to heaven. And we’ve somehow distilled his life and teaching down to this: being nice to people and going to church.

If Jesus came only to enable us to pray a prayer that would secure us safe passage to the afterlife, why would the angels have announced him as the one who would bring peace on earth? If his only message was to teach us to be nice to people, why would Herod have sought to murder him as a baby, and why would the authorities have gone to the trouble of executing him? Where’s the threat in being nice?

You see, when Peter, Paul or the other Apostles proclaimed “Jesus is Lord”, what they were really saying was “Jesus is Lord, and therefore Caesar is not!” To talk that way was a radical and risky act. Jesus’ life and teachings stood in direct opposition to the principalities and powers of his age, so much so that those principalities and powers put him to death and went on to do the same to his disciples.

At some point, probably when the Emperor Constantine decided to domesticate Christianity and adopt it as his pet religion in the fourth century, Jesus’ radical message was stripped of its power, and the one who is king of the world was demoted to personal saviour, private spiritual guide and all-around nice guy. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.

We desperately need to recover the epic scope and huge implications of what Jesus came to accomplish, and what he is still at work to accomplish today.

The principalities and powers of his day might have taken form most visibly and obviously in the oppressive Roman empire and the Jewish religious elite who were complicit with it. But make no mistake: those same principalities and powers are still very much at work in the world today. Let me name them: money, power and privilege. They have but one purpose: to protect those who wield them against any threat. Their weapons are many and varied, but among the most frequently used are violence, coercion, exploitation and the abuse of human rights.

These principalities and powers are utterly implacable in their quest for self-promotion and self-preservation. They will not tolerate compromise: you are either with them or you are against them. The Jewish elite who thought they had covered all the bases by colluding with the occupying Roman forces in first century Palestine found out what the Romans really thought of them in AD 70, when they were slaughtered and their precious city and temple were destroyed. Principalities and powers do not make deals on anyone’s terms but their own.

At the heart of Jesus’ message about turning the other cheek and taking up our cross lies a startling truth: you cannot challenge and overcome the principalities and powers using their own weapons and tools. Fight violence with violence, and all you get is a never-ending spiral of violence. Try to manipulate people into agreeing with you, and all you do is perpetuate the cycle of oppression and abuse. The only way to defeat them is to refuse to fight them on their own terms. This is how Jesus made a public spectacle of the principalities and powers: by laying down his rights and, ultimately, his life. Are we prepared to do the same?

When I consider my own life – my impatience and frustration when things don’t go my way, my anger and irritation at others, my general selfishness – I realise I have a very long way to go in denying myself and taking up my cross. And when I take a wider view and see the systemic social injustice, greed, corruption and inequality that is sustained and fuelled by the unbridled consumer capitalism in which I am, largely, a willing participant, I wonder whether I’ve taken Jesus’ life, death and kingdom message the slightest bit seriously.

The funny thing is, I don’t hear many churches or Christian leaders teaching and inspiring people to take a stand against the prevailing principalities and powers, even if it costs them their reputation, their livelihood and, ultimately, their life. Instead, many churches and leaders seem to be too busy running after success, status, money, influence – all of which, to me, look suspiciously like the very principalities and powers Jesus came to overthrow. This is simply complicity made respectable by couching it in religious jargon.

I didn’t intend this post to be a rant, so let me return to where I started: from the moment of his birth, Jesus defied the world’s systems and powers. When he says “Follow me”, he invites us to do the same. I’m a long way from having worked out just what this means for twenty-first century western Christians, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t mean living exactly like everyone else, running after the same things as everyone else, but going to church and trying to be nice.

Jesus did not teach what he taught, do the works he did, or die as he did in order to be a strictly personal saviour and heaven’s gatekeeper. He came to overthrow the principalities and powers and establish himself as king of the world. We would do well to remember that as we read and sing about the baby lying in the manger, meek and mild.